The Secrets and Scars of Clipperton Island’s Tragic Past

Clipperton island’s place in history is bizarre. Located 670 miles southwest off the coast of Mexico in the eastern Pacific and covering only a mere 6 square kilometers of land, Clipperton isn’t exactly a fantasy tropical island.

This remote and barren island is filled with poisonous crabs, relentlessly battered by rains and storms from May to October, and reeks of ammonia for the rest of the year. Yet, despite these inhospitable factors, Clipperton was a diplomatic headache for much of history and was home to a much more bizarre incident of cruelty and murder a little over a century ago.

The record of the first person to discover Clipperton island is disputed. Some sources claim that this remote island was first discovered in 1521 by Ferdinand Magellan. Other sources argue that a Spanish sea captain named Alvaro de Saavedra Cerón was the first to discover the island in 1526. He named it La Isla de Médanos.

Clipperton island gets its current name from John Clipperton, an early 18th-century English privateer – or pirate for hire – who served the British crown and operated along Central America’s west coast. 

John Clipperton was trying to stop Spanish expansion into Central America and Mexico. Due to the island’s location to the west of the coast of Guatemala and Mexico, He was said to have used the island as a base for his raids around 1705.

In 1711 it was rediscovered by the French explorers Martin de Chassiron and Michel Du Bocage, who drew up the first map and claimed it for France; they renamed the island Île de la Passion, a name that clearly, did not stick.

Survivors of Clipperton Island

The Battle for Guano

In 1804, a German geographer named Alexander von Humboldt was in Peru, and he noticed the natives using a particular substance called guano as fertilizer. So he took a sample of it back to Europe to have it analyzed. Back in Europe, the crop yields made using guano as fertilizer were astonishing.

Consequently, due to its large guano deposits, Clipperton island became subject to claims from France, the United States, and Mexico.

Guano is the accumulated excrement of seabirds and bats and is effective because it contains high content of nitrogen phosphate and potassium, essential for plant growth. 

More interestingly, guano could also be used to create Gunpowder, which was a crucial reason why these three nations were fighting over ownership of the island.

In 1856, the United States passed the Guano Islands act, which made it legal for American explorers and companies to find guano-rich islands located around the Pacific and claim them for the United States, so long as they were uninhabited and unclaimed by another country. 

In 1858, French Emperor, Napoleon III, responded by sending navy troops to annex the island as part of the French colony of Tahiti. But this didn’t settle the ownership question. A crew of Americans arrived at Clipperton island in 1892 with the plan of mining the extremely valuable guano deposits and spent the next few years making a profitable business out of it.

Mexican Ownership of Clipperton Island

With guano suddenly becoming big business, Mexico also became very keen on laying claim to nearby islands with deposits of guano and made the US aware that they considered Clipperton a part of the Mexican territory. 

In 1897 Mexico reasserted its claim on the island again, and the President of Mexico, Porfirio Diaz, sent a gunboat to occupy and annex the island.

The Mexican troops sent by Diaz forcefully removed the small crew of Americans mining the guano deposits on the island and installed a Mexican flag to signal Mexican ownership.

While these three nations were already engaged in a diplomatic war to possess Clipperton island, a fourth nation came into the picture. In 1899 the British navy went to Annex Clipperton island. 

America and France were not exactly pleased, to say the least, about this decision by the British, but Britain was the world’s naval superpower at the time, so there wasn’t much they could do about it.

President Porfirio Diaz, still interested in the island but knowing that he did not possess the military or naval might to repossess the island back from Britain, decided to make a deal with them. 

The Brits could use Clipperton as they saw fit and reap the economic benefits. All they had to do was recognize Mexican sovereignty over the land, with the Brits agreeing to this proposition.

The British Pacific Island company won the rights to exploit the guano deposits in Clipperton island in 1906. They quickly built settlements on the island, planted more palm trees, and began growing vegetables in rock gardens. 

But as the years rolled by, the British company was thwarted by expensive shipping costs and poor market conditions. Finally, it became clear that it wasn’t worth the effort because of the falling price of guano and expensive shipping costs. They eventually got frustrated and left the island in 1909, leaving behind a solitary caretaker.

With the British gone and inadvertently foregoing their claim to the island, France and Mexico signed an arbitration treaty, leaving King Victor Emmanuel III of Italy to decide who would become the rightful owner of the island. While he deliberated, the Mexican government sent men to guard the island.

The Start Of A New Colony

As a result, an actual colony was established, and military governors were put in place. Thirteen Soldiers, followed by their families and servants, were sent to Clipperton island, including a de facto governor named Ramon Arnaud, a 33-year-old military officer, alongside his wife, Alicia Rovira Arnaud. 

It is important to note that Ramon had deserted his duty post within months of enlisting for the Mexican army, which led to him serving five months in a military prison and being sent to Clipperton as part of his punishment.

Later that year, President Porfirio Diaz of Mexico ordered that a lighthouse be built on the island, which is to be manned at all times. Victoriano Alvarez was put in charge of manning this lighthouse. This lighthouse would soon become the sight of Clipperton’s most bizarre events.

By 1910, about 100 men, women, and children lived and worked on Clipperton island. They relied on supply ships from Acapulco every two months to survive.

Supplies Stop Coming to Clipperton

1911 saw a revolution break out in Mexico that saw President Porfirio Diaz deposed. The fighting in the Mexican revolution continued to escalate, and the supply ships stopped coming to the island, which resulted in the colonists being left to their own.

In 1914, an American ship arrived on the island to evacuate the remaining British inhabitants. The ship brought news of the situation back in Mexico and that World War I had just broken out in Europe. 

Given the lack of supply ships, the American captain suggested that governor Arnaud and the rest of the inhabitants on the island come with them on the ship since the happenings in Mexico were now direr than ever, and the government likely had more pressing matters at hand than sending supplies to a small island. Arnaud, however, refused the generous offer from the Americans.

Perhaps, he was worried about deserting his duty post again and decided that they would stay on the island and continue protecting it, or maybe he thought the Mexican revolution would soon end, and the supply ships would resume their normal activities. Nobody knew for sure. But this was a decision he would later come to terribly regret.

The Americans, unable to convince him to come with them, gave him some supplies and set sail over the horizon. Soon enough, their little supplies on the island ran out, and no more ships were in sight. The British-cultivated vegetable garden also perished, leaving the settlers to survive on the occasional coconut and whatever fish or bird they could hunt.

Disease Ravage The Colony

By late 1915, many of the inhabitants of the island began to succumb to scurvy, a horrible disease caused by a lack of vitamin C, with symptoms that started with bleeding gums and then sore spots which developed into open wounds that won’t heal, leaving the affected persons to bleed to death. 

This disease started to ravage the island, killing men, women, and children, although the disease seemed to affect adult men more. By 1916, many of the men were dead, as well as many of the women and children.

A ray of hope finally arrived as Governor Arnaud spotted a ship within a distance of the island one day and ordered all the men into a row boat to help track down the ship. 

The men dragged the small rowboat left with the colonists into the shoreline and began chasing after the vanishing ship. But the story of Ramón Arnaud wasn’t destined for redemption, and as the women and children looked on, they saw the small boat capsize, and all the men perished in the ocean.

Soon as the men capsized, a great storm began, and the governor’s wife, Alicia Arnaud, took the remaining handful of survivors into the basement of the Arnaud house to take refuge. When they emerged, they saw that almost all the houses, along with most of the trees, had been destroyed in the storm.

The Rise Of An Evil King

Before they had time to grieve, Victoriano Alvarez, the reclusive light-house keeper, emerged from the lighthouse where he had been all along, quietly observing the saga of the boat-wrecked crew unfolded.

Alvarez was now the last man on the island, with 15 women and children. Alvarez’s next line of action would turn the lives of the remaining women and children into a nightmare. He collected all the weapons and disposed of them in the sea, keeping only a rifle for himself.

Alvarez then went on to proclaim himself King of the island. He notably decided that all the women on the island were his property. Then, he began an orgy of rape and murder and enslaved the children, meting out unspeakable punishment to anyone who dared to defy him or challenge his authority.

When he commanded that a 15-year-old girl come live with him in his shack, the girl and her mother refused. 

Alvarez made an example out of them by beating them both to death in front of the others, so no one dared ever challenge his authority again.

Most women were, understandably, too frightened to challenge Alvarez, but Tirza Randon, a 20-year-old woman, would notably refuse to kowtow to the lighthouse keeper. Instead, she proved headstrong and openly told him how much she despised him when she was with him, and she would even talk about killing him when she was with the others. 

Malnourished, frightened, and depressed, the women and children all lived under the mercy of Alvarez for three painfully long years until July 1917, when a twist of fate happened that would drastically change their lives.

After several days of administering further beatings and sexual abuse on Tirza Randon, Alvarez brought her back to the shelter where the women and children stayed and ordered that Alicia Arnaud report to his lighthouse the next morning.

After he left, they formed a plan.

A Moment Of Retribution

The next morning, Alicia Arnaud and Tirza Randon approached the lighthouse and found Alvarez cooking a bird he had caught outside the lighthouse. 

When he saw both of them coming, he became visibly angry and began asking Alicia why she had brought Tirza with her when he asked her to come alone.

While the argument between Alvarez and Alicia continued, Tirza stealthily sneaked into the lighthouse, picked up a hammer, and waited for a signal from Alicia. 

Alvarez noticed something fishy and turned around to investigate, but he wasn’t quick enough and was struck in the head with the hammer. As he lay on the ground writhing in pain. Alicia and Tirza got a hold of a knife and proceeded to beat him to death. A rather fitting end for a particularly monstrous human being.

As the women approached the other settlement to tell the others that ‘King Alvarez’ had been defeated, they were met with the sight of the US Navy gunship Yorktown, an American row boat that had been patrolling the water. They took the women and children aboard the ship and was told of the horrors they had endured for the past three years.

Since then, no more attempts have been made to colonize Clipperton island. However, in 1931 King Victor Emmanuel III of Italy ruled that the island was French territory based on the 1711 discovery and the 1858 formal declaration by the French emperor. The Mexican congress ratified the declaration and relinquished all territorial claims in 1932.

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